A couple of months ago, I was indulging in one of my kitchen disco sessions. The husband’s preference is to select individual tracks to listen to, whereas I tend to go for full albums (I’ll explain why in due course). I had The Clash’s London Calling playing whilst cooking. Hubby asked me the name of the current track, and I couldn’t give him an answer. One of my favourite albums, by one of my favourite bands, and I don’t know the track listing. This is pretty much always the case. Lists and factual information are not how I engage with music.
That probably seems mind-boggling to many fellow music obsessives. But the truth is, the activity of memorising song titles, track listings, even lyrics, simply doesn’t interest me. My engagement with music is almost entirely sensory. I can get a song stuck in my head after one listening – and when I mean ‘song’, I mean melody, harmonies, riffs, drum patterns, instrumentation, the lot. Apart from the lyrics.
I like to listen to entire albums because I see them as a coherent, cohesive aesthetic whole. I prefer to hear the tracks in the specific order the artist chose. And I thus my identification of tracks tends to be along the lines of “it’s the one that starts like ‘this’, with that funny bit in the middle, that comes immediately after that one that goes like ‘that’ with that crazy vocal stuff about two-thirds of the way through”. It’s why I’m not keen on ‘Best of’ and ‘Greatest Hits’ releases – it’s not really anything to do with snobbery over ownership of an artist’s original releases; I just don’t like the lack of context very much. It also means I hate it when people skip a track because they don’t like it – even a crap song has its place on that album.
None of the above means I own absolutely zero compilations, don’t occasionally enjoy blasting out few particular songs entirely out of their album context, or that I never, ever remember lyrics or song titles. Many individual songs are very important to me. They resonate in ways that go beyond the music itself. And, as I mentioned in a previous post, I enjoy having indie discos in the living room and sharing my favourite tunes with my children. Certain tracks I associate very strongly with pivotal moments in my life. But that doesn’t belittle the notion that most of my focus is on the music.
I have a CD collection that’s organised two-tier: firstly, alphabetically by artist; then, for each artist, in chronological order of release. Categorising by genre is something I see as stupid. If I’m after an album or song that evokes a particular mood, feeling or sensation, I could find that anywhere in my collection. I know the sounds of my collection well enough not to consider genre in the first instance. But I don’t think any of this really strikes me as especially geeky or ‘autistic’ – I simply have enough CDs that it makes sense to organise them so it’s easier to find the one I want to play. It’s not perfect – the small children in our household have made sure of that. But it more or less works.
I used to have some arbitrary purchasing rules: indie pop and punk singles were always bought on 7″; dance, drum’n’ bass, and big beat (remember that one?) tended to be bought on 12″; the rest mainly on CD. I love the sound of vinyl, but sadly I’m also concerned with convenience.
Okay, so some readers might be thinking by now that all this still seems pretty nerdy. But what I’m trying to get at is that I don’t really see myself as a ‘collector’. It doesn’t remotely pain me that I don’t own every release by a certain artist, even my absolute favourites. I don’t give a shit about limited editions unless the packaging is really, really pretty, but if I’ve already got a bog standard version of the record, I’m not that bothered about having another slightly prettier copy with one additional bonus track. There might be – on very rare occasions – a passing tinge of regret about this, but little more.
Besides, I see my music geekiness as far less extreme than that of many people I know, the majority of whom (based on my recent obsessive researching of the condition, and its many features and traits) are unlikely to be autistic.
I used to pretend to be more of a music geek than I actually was. When I first got to university, and discovered – wow! – that there was a whole load of people I had tonnes of stuff in common with at long last (I did have some friends during my teenage years, but most of my gig-going buddies went to a different school), I often tried to appear more knowledgeable about a particular band, record label or genre of music than I actually was. It was an attempt to ‘fit in’ that never entirely worked. Even among relative outsiders, I felt that I wasn’t quite projecting a version of myself that entirely matched up with what was required. Over the years, I have been able to let my guard slip – certain close friendships didn’t require this level of pretence after a while. Such things are no longer as important to me as they were when I was an insecure young adult.
The truth is, I’m not obsessed enough with one genre of music to have, or even want to have, an encyclopaedic knowledge of it. I love music itself too much. I’d almost go as far as saying that music isn’t actually one of my special interests (controversial!). My love of it is far more visceral, primal, and physical. I’m no synaesthete, but do feel a full-body immersion in music when I play, listen and move to it.
There are other stereotypically geeky things that I like – science fiction novels and movies, horror films, comic books, anime – of which I, once again, don’t have sufficient in-depth factual knowledge or extensive collections for me to classify them as special interests. They’re just part of a whole gamut of stuff I sort of like.
So if none of these things are special interests, what the hell are my “highly restricted, fixated interests that are abnormal in intensity or focus” (to quote B3 of the DSM-V criteria)?
Well. There’s a question.
And the answer is whatever I’m learning about right now (currently, that would be autism). I genuinely feel that I could turn my hand to learning about absolutely anything.
I love the process of learning stuff. Not so much the learning of skills, unless they relate specifically to a particular topic I’m researching (I hated learning to play the trumpet. I just enjoyed playing it, once I was good enough not to wince at my mistakes. And I got good enough simply by playing it a lot with other people. Rather like someone getting reasonably good at running purely through competing in loads of races, rather than through a dedicated training plan).
I have an absolute thirst for knowledge, and whatever I happen to be learning or researching at a particular time, I will delve into as deeply, and explore as widely, as I possibly can. I will be awake late a night just thinking about what I’ve learned, considering how it connects with what’s gone before, discovering new patterns, considering where to go next. My thoughts swirl and spiral, my mind and body dizzy with the excitement of true fascination.
The year I took time out of full-time employment (right at the start of the 2008 financial crisis) to study, as a mature student, for a Masters degree, was one of the best years of my life. Learning was an absolute joy. I’ve loved working towards a teaching qualification in my current job. I enjoy researching particular topics to help me support the people I work with. And I see connections everywhere.
When I was a child I had the same intense interest in books. I could literally stay up all night reading. I re-read certain favourites again and again. I also, during primary school, went through a period of extreme obsession with the musical Cats – I have never been interested in any other musicals before or since (truth be told, I bloody hate musical theatre). I think it was as much to do with really, really, really liking cats – the animals – as anything else.
My point, after all this, is that many of my special interests may appear merely the interested of someone who’s a bit ‘bookish’. And that’s probably very true of many female autistics, particularly those who remain undiagnosed well into adulthood. Our interests (Cats aside – that one was a bit niche) don’t strike people as especially unusual.
But they are intense in focus, however short-lived the intensity. I’ve never stuck with one particular interest. But many of them I’ve lived and breathed whilst I’ve been focused on them.
And y’know what? Occasional bouts of sleep deprivation aside, I don’t see anything wrong with that. Abnormal to whom, exactly? I love how exciting – and utterly joyous – special interests can be.
And yet, when I was completing my documentation for ASD assessment referral, it never even occurred to me to mention music.
Music just seems…different.